A couple days ago, some friends of mine who name-drop Cthulhu all the time admitted they had never actually read any Lovecraft. Further investigation revealed this was actually a common thread among loads of people who play Call of Cthulhu RPG, or describe various buildings or institutions as Lovecraftian, or use “Oh my Cthulhu!” as an atheist substitute for “Oh my God”.
Also a couple of days ago, I got a friend Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath for her birthday, which inspired me to re-read it myself and fall back into its rhythms and mysteries.
And I know it sounds like the height of pretention, but I’m going to come out and say it anyway: I am kind of unsatisfied with what geek culture has done to Lovecraft.
Hello Cthulhu was funny for a few minutes. The Campus Crusade for Cthulhu might be amusing if you’ve had too many dealings with their more wholesome counterpart. Shoggoth on the Roof continues to be one of the most hilarious musicals I have never quite managed to make it to a real showing of (my two favorite songs are Tentacles and To Life.)
Lovecraft himself did have a sense of humor, and his biography of Ibid continues to be one of our most important resources on the subject. But I have never seen any signs that he ever decided to mix any trace of humor into his dealing with the Elder Gods or the fantasy worlds he created. I don’t think that was just a lack of sufficient creativity. I think that was a deliberate part of his artistic impulse, at the heart of what he was trying to say.
Here is a passage from The Silver Key. It is long, but I have shortened it as much as I dared, and indeed you would do far better to read the much longer original. Nevertheless, here is the passage. All emphasis is my own:
When Randolph Carter was thirty he lost the key of the gate of dreams. Prior to that time he had made up for the prosiness of life by nightly excursions to strange and ancient cities beyond space, and lovely, unbelievable garden lands across ethereal seas; but as middle age hardened upon him he felt those liberties slipping away little by little, until at last he was cut off altogether. No more could his galleys sail up the river Oukranos past the gilded spires of Thran, or his elephant caravans tramp through perfumed jungles in Kled, where forgotten palaces with veined ivory columns sleep lovely and unbroken under the moon [...]
So Carter had tried to do as others did, and pretended that the common events and emotions of earthy minds were more important than the fantasies of rare and delicate souls. He did not dissent when they told him that the animal pain of a stuck pig or dyspeptic ploughman in real life is a greater thing than the peerless beauty of Narath with its hundred carven gates and domes of chalcedony, which he dimly remembered from his dreams; and under their guidance he cultivated a painstaking sense of pity and tragedy.
Once in a while, though, he could not help seeing how shallow, fickle, and meaningless all human aspirations are, and how emptily our real impulses contrast with those pompous ideals we profess to hold. Then he would have recourse to the polite laughter they had taught him to use against the extravagance and artificiality of dreams; for he saw that the daily life of our world is every inch as extravagant and artificial, and far less worthy of respect because of its poverty in beauty and its silly reluctance to admit its own lack of reason and purpose. In this way he became a kind of humorist, for he did not see that even humour is empty in a mindless universe devoid of any true standard of consistency or inconsistency [...] Having lost [their] artificial settings, [people's] lives grow void of direction and dramatic interest; till at length they strive to drown their ennui in bustle and pretended usefulness, noise and excitement, barbaric display and animal sensation. When these things pall, disappoint, or grew nauseous through revulsion, they cultivate irony and bitterness, and find fault with the social order [...]
Then he began once more the writing of books, which he had left off when dreams first failed him. But here, too, was there no satisfaction or fulfillment; for the touch of earth was upon his mind, and he could not think of lovely things as he had done of yore. Ironic humor dragged down all the twilight minarets he reared, and the earthy fear of improbability blasted all the delicate and amazing flowers in his faery gardens. The convention of assumed pity spilt mawkishness on his characters, while the myth of an important reality and significant human events and emotions debased all his high fantasy into thin-veiled allegory and cheap social satire. His new novels were successful as his old ones had never been; and because he knew how empty they must be to please an empty herd, he burned them and ceased his writing. They were very graceful novels, in which he urbanely laughed at the dreams he lightly sketched; but he saw that their sophistication had sapped all their life away.
Lovecraft was not opposed to humor, but I think he was opposed to ironic humor, opposed to the kind of humor that takes something titanic and magnificent and then sticks it in the middle of the mundane world so we can all laugh at how it’s not really that much beyond us after all.
And I am pretty sure that putting Cthulhu into Hello Kitty cartoons qualifies.
I think Lovecraft’s artistic philosophy was to come up with something so far beyond normal human experience, so intensely appealing to our wilder and more celestial tendencies and so completely unrelated to our normal base emotions, that even people not quite as sensitive as he was could feel a glimpse of this transcendent otherness.
Although some people classify Lovecraft as a horror writer, I think this misses his essence – there is nothing horrible about The Silver Key, and Randolph Carter, the character most closely corresponding to Lovecraft himself, usually comes out of his encounters with the Beyond better than he went into them. Lovecraft is a writer of the strange, intense, and unearthly. Horror is one of the feelings that can be intense, but so is wonder.
Lovecraft’s aim in creating Cthulhu – and all the rest, because in Actual Lovecraft (as opposed to Pop Lovecraft) Cthulhu is a relatively minor character – was to give us something completely divorced from our normal world where the aesthetic senses could wander free from their usual pollution by the everyday world of politics, commercialism, and status-seeking.
I should clarify that “just to spit in his face” thing. I don’t think people literally did this to anger Lovecraft’s ghost, since that sounds like the worst idea. But I do think that the more inappropriate a subject is for humor, the more distressing and contradictory to its nature it would be to turn it into a joke, the more humorous it is likely to be. The existence of an entire canon of dead baby jokes is a good example of this. The continuing popularity of racist jokes, which as far as I can tell greatly exceeds the continued popularity of actual non-joke racism, is another. Lovecraft is much like racism and dead babies in that it is something that obviously should never be joked about, and therefore incessantly is.
But the situation with Lovecraft is kind of worse than the other two. People who tell dead baby jokes are at least aware that real babies sometimes actually die and that this is very sad. People who tell racist jokes are usually entirely aware of and sometimes even believe in the anti-racism movement, and if not they at least know there exist real black people out there somewhere and that they’re not just this mysterious vague concept that serves as a useful butt for jokes.
Yet so many of the people who make fun of Cthulhu have never read the Dream-Quest, never climbed Ngranek in their imagination or visualized gorgeous minaret-studded Celephais with its sky-bound galleys, never shrank in terror from the High-Priest-Not-To-Be-Described.
And if that’s what people want, fine. I won’t deny that a lot of Lovecraftian humor is pretty funny.
But if you think Cthulhu’s interesting, and if you’re also the sort of person who longs for the fantastic and otherworldly, if there’s anything poetic or romantic in you, I urge you not to limit your Lovecraft knowledge to Call of Cthulhu RPG and to take a look at some of his more serious works. I most highly recommend The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, which like all Lovecraft is freely available online should only take two or three hours if you’re a fast reader. But if that sounds like too much for you, there are excellent short stories in the Dream Cycle like The White Ship that shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.